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Back in Iowa City in October, the dozen couples on the bus have many interpretations of what a wedding looks like. Some, who don't have the support of their families, have come alone. Others have brought an entourage, such as the pair of women who recently graduated from high school. They walk down the aisle in jeans and T-shirts that say, "Marriage is so gay."
One tattooed bride, radiantly pregnant, walks down the aisle of the drafty church in a shimmering platinum goddess dress with an empire waist to accommodate her baby bump. A pair of men look almost exactly alike in chambray-colored button-downs and khaki pants. Two pairs of women who have more than 50 years of commitment between them wear pants and jackets with precise angles. Some of the couples have written vows for each other.
Rabbi Susan Talve conducts a traditional Jewish ceremony, complete with stomped-on glass. She praises the couples for having the "holy chutzpah" to make a stand. She employs the same chuppah she's used for dozens of same-sex couples, going all the way back to the first pair she married in Iowa: Ed Reggi and Scott Emanuel.
The husbands are activists in St. Louis' LGBT community. Reggi runs Show Me No Hate, which sponsors the bus trips. Emanuel works with a group called Growing American Youth that supports LGBT youth as they navigate growing up in the Bible Belt.
Reggi and Emanuel were among the first St. Louis residents to marry in Iowa City. Since their own wedding in 2009, they've chartered buses full of same-sex couples eager to formalize their unions up to the Hawkeye State.
"I do so many weddings," says Rabbi Talve. "It's bittersweet. It's quick; their families and friends aren't here. God's will, they'll all have big weddings soon. They've been negotiating this for a long time, piecing legal things together."
And it is piecemeal.
"It's a service we provide in this office," says Kim Painter, the Johnson County recorder. She speaks above the din of a dozen couples jamming the county office that fall morning, filling out paperwork to get Iowa marriage licenses — so coveted, and yet legally toothless once the bus crosses state lines. "We're happy to provide it. Anytime anyone gets married, it's a joy. It raises very unique legal questions and always has."
Despite being starry-eyed and blissful on their big day, the couples are aware that the Iowa ceremony doesn't bring them the full complement of benefits that a federally recognized marriage does. They know they're pioneers.
"We're certainly waiting for equal rights on the federal level. That's where it counts the most," says Elsbeth Brugger, milling around the church basement before the ceremony that will solidify her bond to Gretchen Vander Meulen after nearly 23 years together. "It's an equal-rights thing! If it had been legal to get married, we'd have done it a long time ago."
"When it became legal in a few states, we thought we'd do it," says Vander Meulen, a native Iowan who is proud of her state's progressive stance. "Iowa has always been a leader in education, making decisions for people that make common sense. The more LGBT people take this step, the more it affirms that it's for everyone's benefit."
Before the ceremonies begin, the Reverend Benjamin Maucere of the Unitarian Universalist Church addresses the crowd of couples.
"It's very exciting to me after performing commitment ceremonies for years, to be able to say, 'By the power vested in me by the state of Iowa,'" he says. "For us, it's social justice."
One month after the trip to Iowa, newlywed — and newly named — Alvin Hotop-Hill is still basking in the glow of his wedding. (His partner, the former Ryan Hotop, is now Ryan Hotop-Hill.) At their wedding, the pair sported matching tracksuits and boutonnières. They were accompanied by Alvin's younger sister, who was fierce in black-and-white camo pants and jacket with over-the-knee stiletto patent leather boots.
Alvin is thrilled with the solemnity of his bond to his husband but realizes it's symbolic. "The marriage vows are so serious, regardless of the fact that Missouri recognizes it or not, we recognize it in our hearts. We recognize it."
In terms of legal protection for their union, an attorney has drawn up living wills for the pair and assigned each power of attorney over the other. Despite the romance of his wedding day, Hotop-Hill is pragmatic about the ramifications.
"We went to Iowa; those people were so ingratiating," he says. "Part of it has to do with the fact that there's a whole lot of revenue going to that state and the city. How dumb is that? You know what? Missouri needs to get on board."
It feels almost vulturelike to ask a man one month into his marriage about divorce — but the question is there for both the Hotop-Hills and all the couples who wed that day.
"Tomorrow's not guaranteed to us," he says. "We wouldn't have gotten into this if we weren't serious, but if that were ever to be the case, I would recognize the marriage as legal. It would be a fair division of property. We share that."
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